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Before and After: A Historic Home’s Run-Down Kitchen Gets Its Vintage Charm Back

published Sep 19, 2021
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kitchen before renovation white cabinets
Credit: Leslie James

Falling in love with a historic home is easy, but keeping its charm, character, and history intact after a renovation can be a little tricky.

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That was the challenge for Leslie James, the creator of Denver Squared, when it came time to restore her gorgeous 1898 house. As a self-professed lover of good storytelling and all things antique, she fell in love with her home, which combined “ornate features of a Victorian — solid oak pocket doors, handcrafted moldings, high ceilings — with many of the more streamlined elements of a craftsman — natural wood, simple gables — in a supremely functional American Foursquare design,” she says.

When it came time to redo the kitchen, the challenge was actually to bring back the character and charm that had been lost over the years. “We had a builder-grade, early-1990s kitchen,” she says. “It was the only area of our 1898 house that didn’t at least try to stay with a more historically appropriate aesthetic. We hated the always-looks-dirty blue and brown tile.”

Credit: Leslie James

Fortunately, Leslie — who left the tech world during COVID-19 and now antiques professionally and sources architectural salvage items — was up for the task. (In fact, before the renovation even began, she had already bought a 1929 Kohler sink almost two years earlier.) Not only was the kitchen’s design totally different from the rest of the house, but it was also in disrepair and barely functional.

“The melamine cabinets were peeling apart, and quite literally falling off the walls,” she says. “And the layout itself was a challenge. It was originally laid out as a dysfunctional U-shaped kitchen, so it was next to impossible to prep with two cooks and have kids eat in. It always felt cluttered, frenetic, and overwhelming to be in the kitchen before. It was definitely not a place you wanted to be — just a place you had to be.”

Credit: Leslie James

After a long wait and lots of planning, Leslie and her husband decided to renovate the kitchen this year. “We had been saving up and refining our vision for what the space could be for 12 long years,” she says. “We knew we needed a space that could accommodate two cooks and had enough space for our family of four to eat breakfast.”

They worked with Classic Homeworks, a Denver-based firm specializing in renovating historic homes, to complete the project over seven months. Leslie worked with them to completely reconfigure the space and turn it into a modern, fully functional kitchen. A large part of that was increasing their storage by extending the cabinets all the way up to the ceiling — but making them accessible to everyone (regardless of their height!) at all times with a library ladder. 

Credit: Leslie James

“By resizing one of the windows back to full height, we brought in a ton of natural light that highlights the period-appropriate design choices — soapstone counters, beadboard wainscotting, inset cabinetry with bronze hardware and exposed hinges, and 1920s polychrome light fixtures.”

Credit: Leslie James

In the end, Leslie’s mix of vintage items and family heirlooms (like her grandmother’s walnut table) paired with modern upgrades and appliances (including a Miele dishwasher, Sub-Zero refrigerator, wood Thermador range hood, and Bluestar range) struck the perfect balance of old and new in a historic home. 

Credit: Leslie James

“I love how the kitchen makes me feel. It’s inviting, comforting, and calming,” she says. Their total budget for the kitchen renovation was a hefty $185,000.

Credit: Leslie James

“But we did relocate the appliances, take down a wall, and try to make all of our design choices as historically appropriate as possible, while getting a modern kitchen,” she says. “And I would wholeheartedly say that every penny that we spent on an antique or vintage item was 100% worth it. They make the kitchen feel like it’s been there all along.”